My mother’s day

By John Toth

We sat in the railroad car as the train made its way through the countryside. Neither one of us had ever been this far from home.

The train approached the border crossing between Austria and Hungary. The border guards began to board. It was a brisk, sunny day on March 6, 1966.

It was my mother’s day.

My mother brought along a portable coffee maker. She had to have her coffee even on a big day like this – the day when she took her 10-year-old son and escaped from a Soviet bloc country, where she had lived all of her life.

Gizella Toth had nerves of steel. She acted like there was nothing going on. She talked to the border guards like we were going to Vienna on vacation. She smiled and joked. I was running my mouth about the train and whatever else a 10-year-old says on the trip of his life. It was only my second train ride, and I was enjoying it.

The guards were looking at forged papers. The passport was real, but I was forged on it. All of the papers that led up to getting the passport were also fake. My mother had some friends who worked at different offices to take care of the documents.

My passport photo was taken in a basement. It didn’t make much sense, but what did I know back in those days about how passport photos are made?

The passport came by mail on a Saturday. Both my parents were at work, and I signed for it. Then I threw it on the bed and went to play. I didn’t think much of it.

She didn’t say much during the trip. I thought she was enjoying the ride, like I was. She had never been in another country, even though in Europe the countries are bunched together.

It was a different world in 1966. Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain. The country was poor, still feeling the effects of WWII, which had ended two decades earlier. There was a revolution in 1956 that was beaten down by Russian troops. The West was thriving; the Soviet Bloc countries were merely surviving.

I’m pretty sure that my mother also had another motive to leave the country. My father was an alcoholic, and she had had enough of it.

The combination of these two scenarios were enough to push her into making the decision of her life.

We were going to Vienna to start all over. As it turned out, we were not allowed to stay. We had to find another country. At the last minute, the United States granted us political asylum. In October 1967, we were on a plane to New York.

But back on March 6, 1966, we didn’t know what would happen. I thought we were going sight-seeing. She knew that we had just escaped.

In Vienna, we met up with friends of friends who helped us to get oriented and find the International Rescue Committee offices. This non-profit agency, based in New York, helped us through the hard times and handled a lot of the paperwork that we needed to immigrate.

But as the train pulled into the station in Vienna, we had no clue whether they would be there. They were supposed to be, but who knew? What would she have done if no one had showed up? Would we have just gone on vacation and then returned to Hungary?

“That was not an option,” she told me later. “I was not going back.”

She had her poker face on that entire day. But inside, she was scared – very scared.

It was a day when everything went according to a plan. It took two years of preparation to get to that point.

March 6, 1966 was a special day for my mother. It was a day that changed our future. She gave it everything she had and pulled it off perfectly.

It turned out to be my mother’s day.

We talked many times about that day before she died.

“Why did you do it?” I asked.

“For you,” she said

She died in 1986, and I miss her.